By Jodie Bomze
Imagine: after months of planning and spreading the news to friends and family, the bittersweet day has finally come for you to leave the familiar sights and sounds of your homeland and pursue a better education and promising career opportunities in a new place, very far away.
When you walk into the airport of your new country, you immediately sense you’re in unfamiliar territory. The people look different and they speak a different language. Self-doubt and insecurity start creeping in, and you wonder if you’ve made the right decision.
Still, you want a better life than the one you would have at home, so you push through your insecurities and chase your dreams.
That was the story for three of PPCC’s current international students: Mandetebe Bitema, Dulce Estrada Gomez, and Sungsoo Kim, and their dreams led them here.
In any given year at PPCC, there are around 500 students with international origins, according to Robin Schofield, Co-Director of Global Studies. Some are here on F1 education visas or are here as part of our military, and a significant number of these students are refugees, she says.
All of them are here because they have a strong desire to learn, Schofield adds.
Mandetebe Bitema [mawn-deh-TEH-beh], a tall, strong, handsome young man from Togo, Africa, knew very little English when he moved here. Bitema says he learned the host language by watching cartoons, listening to music, and reading newspapers.
“I sing country music in my car,” he says.
He came to pursue his dream of becoming a physician. He picked the U.S. for the multiculturalism and Colorado for the mountains. He is currently studying Pre-Nursing and hopes to transfer to UCCS and onto medical school in the future.
He is passionate about education and describes some of the differences of a college classroom in Togo compared with a classroom at PPCC.
There are typically 3,500 seats in a college classroom in Togo and nearly 7,000 students will be enrolled in the class, according to Bitema. There aren’t enough seats for everyone so they stand in the back.
“You’re not allowed to ask a question,” Bitema says. “How would you ask a question in a room with close to 10,000 people? You cannot.”
Bitema describes that there isn’t air conditioning in the rooms. The teacher has a microphone and is the only one with the textbook. The students are expected to take notes, memorize the content and do their own research after class.
There aren’t any labs offered–only lectures, Bitema says. No one has the convenience of internet on their cell phone either. Students have to find the time to go to the cyber café and pay for the internet.
“Everybody still has the mindset that we have to go to school,” he says.
That is, if your parents can afford to send you to school. “Your parents pay for it. You go to the farm, you grow the food, you go to the market, you sell it and you pay for it. That’s how you do it,” he explains.
Financial aid is out of the question for students in Togo. Bitema shakes his head and smiles wide. “When I look at the opportunities we have here [in the U.S.] as young people or college students, it’s too good. They give you the opportunity to go online and apply for financial aid. I still don’t get it. I still don’t believe it. Are you serious?”
Bitema encourages students to talk to the international students in their classes. He met his now best friend in one of his early classes. At first, he took offense to the seemingly ridiculous questions his American classmate asked him: Do you have cars? Where do you sleep? Do you sleep in the same room as lions?
“Nobody lives with lions. They are 100’s of miles away,” Bitema says and smiles.
Soon he realized that the questions were coming from curiosity and misinformation from movies and T.V. shows.
“We can learn a lot from each other. We are here to learn and you don’t only learn from your teachers, you learn from your classmates,” he says.
Dulce Estrada Gomez [DOOL-seh] is a student from Michoacan, Mexico. She was surprised by the lack of communication between people in general when she moved here.
“In Mexico, everyone is your friend. You can ask personal questions to anyone and ask favors and, here, I feel like you have to know someone to ask for anything, including personal questions,” she says.
She moved here six years ago with her mother and two brothers to join her father. She is a General Studies major and hopes to transfer to UCCS to study Biology.
Estrada Gomez is a shy, soft-spoken young lady with long, wavy dark hair. She wears a top decorated with traditional Mexican flowers and colors. She has a kind smile and a friendly presence.
When she first arrived here, one of the biggest struggles for her was in social settings with strangers and friends alike.
“People in Mexico are so friendly and they like to say ‘hi’ to everyone and have little conversations, real conversations. People like to look at each other while talking,” she says.
When Estrada Gomez lived in Mexico, she used to smile and greet everyone who passed by but when she smiles at passersby here, they look at her strangely and keep walking.
When people do greet each other, it is also different, she explains. In most countries in Latin America, people greet each other with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Now that she lives in the U.S., she has to remember her personal space.
International students struggle with language barriers and emotional barriers, Estrada Gomez says, including homesickness and loneliness.
Learning new material at school can be difficult for natives, but Estrada Gomez points out that learning in a foreign language in a foreign country, is even more challenging.
“We have to work extra to understand an assignment,” she says. “I think people have to remember that we are from a different culture and that we are not used to doing the things that people are used to here and that it would be nice if someone explains to us if we are doing or saying something wrong.”
Estrada Gomez is involved in a school group called the Global Village, where both international and local students meet weekly to discuss various topics related to global and student issues. It offers students a place to share their experiences and thoughts with each other in a non-threatening environment.
Sungsoo Kim [sung-SOO], another member of PPCC’s Global Village, is a tall, athletic young man from South Korea. He has lived here for less than a year. He has a peaceful demeanor and yearns to be understood.
He originally chose to study abroad in France. He struggled with not having friends or family around, as well as not knowing the language, so he moved back to South Korea after a year and a half.
“One day, I got sick and tired of everything. I let them [his parents] down, and I came back to South Korea after I had wasted more money. I decided to give up studying and spent my time working a part time job,” Kim says.
It was too late to study in Korea so he served his mandatory time in the South Korean Military before starting a part-time job at a book publisher. He didn’t enjoy his work. In conversation, people would ask him what he did before working and he would have to relive his disappointment.
“I was fine physically but not mentally,” he says.
“I felt the fear of inadequacy,” he says.
His aunt, who lives in Colorado Springs, suggested he move here and study at PPCC. He jumped at the idea of studying again.
“Due to the endless love of my parents about my education, I could get a second chance to study again,” he says.
Kim is in his first semester, studying Computer Science and hopes to transfer to a 4-year university. His goal is to work in the U.S. in the IT industry.
All of the international students provide the PPCC community with the chance to interact with the world directly.
“I think having an international student as a classmate is the best thing ever. We have more credibility because we just came from there. Why not ask?” Bitema says.
For more information about PPCC’s international students or The Global Village, contact Amy Cornish at firstname.lastname@example.org